Addiction & The Elderly: Securing Addiction Treatment for Seniors

Many folks don’t associate drug abuse with elderly people, but the fact is – more elderly people are becoming addicted to medications and are misusing substances. What often starts as taking prescribed medications for legitimate health concerns is quickly turning into an addiction epidemic amongst the elderly population.

Drug Abuse and the Elderly

With aging comes more aches, pains, and maladies; therefore, the number of elderly people taking prescription drugs is on the rise. Some doctors hesitate to diagnose substance abuse problems in their elderly patients, excusing common signs and symptoms of drug abuse to aging. In some cases, medical professionals continue the notion that elderly people are entitled to or are more in need of drugs and alcohol – even if these substances are being used in excess. Medical and mental health problems are more likely to arise with aging, and existing problems often exacerbate with age, setting the perfect stage for high levels of drug and alcohol abuse amongst the elderly population.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information cites that prescription, nonprescription, and over-the-counter medication use in older adults is higher than in younger adults. And while prescription drug abuse is on the rise among the elderly population, alcohol remains the most widely used and abused substance by older adults.

While drug and alcohol abuse is dangerous for any age, addiction can be even more deadly when dealing with the elderly population. As our bodies age, physiological changes in our bodies and brains make us more susceptible to the effects of drug and alcohol. Metabolism is proven to slow down with age, making it more difficult to process drugs and alcohol circulating through the bloodstream. Additionally, substance abuse increases the risk of falling and accidents, making elderly people more likely to experience broken bones, bruising, and lacerations from drug and alcohol abuse. Some studies show drug and alcohol abuse may exacerbate memory loss and delirium, speeding up a decline in mental health for many addicted elderly people.

Likely Causes of Elderly Addiction

The aging process can be difficult for many people to deal with. Mental or physical ailments and distress, chronic pain, the death of a loved one or spouse, and a decrease in physical abilities are common reasons why elderly people begin to abuse drugs or alcohol. As people retire, lose friends or spouses to age-related illnesses, or lose their ability to engage in regular social and physical activity like they once could, loneliness, isolation, and depression can set in.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) cites that more than 80 percent of older patients use at least one prescription medication, while more than 50 percent take more than FIVE medications or supplements daily! Ease of access is a huge factor in drug and alcohol abuse among varying populations, and elderly patients have more access to prescription medications than any other population. The ailments that accompany aging, coupled with a society that has come to accept and expect older adults to take numerous medications, give elderly people a lot of access to various medications. In many cases across the country, this ease of access is leading to crippling substance abuse issues, and in some unfortunate cases this has even turned out to be deadly.

Detecting Senior Drug Abuse and Taking Action

Since many of the signs of drug addiction can also mimic natural signs of aging, addiction often goes unnoticed or undetected in elderly people. Drug or alcohol abuse may mimic other conditions such as early dementia, depression, or even diabetes. Senior citizens are often retired, no longer part of the daily workforce, they often live alone or remote from other family members, and their social circles tend to decrease as their peers pass away or become less able to attend social functions. These factors make it more difficult to identify drug and alcohol addiction in elderly people.

If the following symptoms are occurring in an older adult, it may be a sign of drug addiction:

  • Decreased appetite or unexplained weight loss.
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Trouble sleeping
  • A decrease in personal hygiene routines
  • Slurred or garbled speech
  • Social withdrawal, depression, sadness

Another common sign of drug addiction that often goes unnoticed in the elderly is going through prescription medications faster than they were intended or prescribed. Since aging also can come with a myriad of other physical problems, older adults often have various doctors treating a variety of physical ailments. Due to this, it is common for elderly people to receive more than one prescription medication or various medications from varying doctors. It is important that family members, loved ones, and pharmacy staff are taking care to ensure there is no excess of medications being prescribed, filled and consumed.

Finding Treatment for Yourself or a Loved One

Finding the right treatment for an elderly person struggling with addiction is an integral part of preventing another addiction-related tragedy. It is natural for addicts to feel ashamed, embarrassed or be in denial regarding their addiction, therefore the first obstacle that must be overcome to treating drug addiction is admitting the addiction exists. Both the addict and their family and friends must acknowledge the addiction is present before a solid plan of action can be put in place.

When searching for a treatment program that is right for you or a loved one, seeking advice on treatment programs and methods from your primary care physician or health care provider is a great place to start. Since elderly addicts often have other health conditions requiring maintenance and treatment, it is important to integrate addiction treatment with other health care needs when planning treatment for an elderly patient. Many treatment programs, if authorized to do so by the patient, will liaise with the patient’s primary care physician to ensure the patient is correctly weaning off the harmful, addictive and unnecessary medications while ensuring necessary medications are safely continued as needed.

Inpatient facilities are often the most effective forms of treatment. They provide an intensive and safe treatment environment, require a substantial break in regular habit and routine, and provide medical supervision and care around the clock. Although many elderly addicts are apprehensive about entering inpatient treatment, this is most likely their best chance for attaining sobriety. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends family and friends searching for treatment for a loved one ask these five questions when searching for an addiction treatment program:

  1. Does the program use treatments backed by scientific research and evidence?
  2. Will the program tailor the treatment to the specific needs of the patient?
  3. Will the program adapt the treatment plan as the needs of the patient change?
  4. Is the duration of the treatment program sufficient?
  5. Does 12-step or similar recovery programs fit into the treatment method?

The truth is, our elderly population is just as much at risk for addiction as our younger generations, and in some cases, they are even more at risk. It is important to be vigilant of the signs and symptoms of addiction so a treatment plan can be put in place as needed. Navigating between necessary medications for legitimate health concerns and unnecessary medications that are being abused or overused IS possible, but it requires alert family members and friends, and physicians that are paying close attention to their elderly patients.